I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by a poet’s act of confession. All material is filtered (to a greater or lesser extent) through the consciousness of the artist and so it seems inevitable that personal experience should creep in. (Certainly critics are eager to read works as implicit glosses on personal experience… or personal experience as a gloss on the work). But Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters is something else altogether. An explicit poetical autobiography, a collection focused on the nature of his hugely formative but doomed relationship with fellow poet, Sylvia Plath, a subject on which he had long been stubbornly and damagingly silent. His critics (largely composed of die-hard Plath fans) rejected it as a pathetic apologia, an attempt to clear his guilty conscience as his own death loomed large. In the contrary camp Seamus Heaney claimed that: “It takes you down to levels of pressure where the under truths of sadness and endurance leave you gasping”, and Andrew Motion (Mr. Current Poet Laureate) called it “his greatest book”.
It flows chronologically, beginning with Fulbright Scholars a narrative prose-poem that imagines his first vision of her:
…No doubt I scanned particularly
The girls. Maybe I noticed you.
Maybe I weighed you up, feeling unlikely,
Noted your long hair, loose waves…
And your grin,
Your exaggerated American
Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners,
Then I forgot…
It was February 1956 and she was 23, a precocious “Alpha” graduate recently arrived at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship. He was 25, the Yorkshire-born son of a carpenter, a graduate of Pembroke College working with the BBC in London. When they met at a literary party later that month there was an immediate chemistry between them, an electricity that sparked off a violent embrace…so violent that Plath tore Hughes face with her teeth and he ripped out some of her hair tugging off her bandana:
“…the swelling ring-moat of tooth marks
That was to brand my face for the next month.
The me beneath for good.” (St. Botolph’s)
He kept the blue headscarf in his pocket, and this first memento provides a counterpoint to the final elegiac note of the collection in Red.
Breaking off other liaisons, they married on June 16th of the same year (as Hughes’ recalls in Bloomsday) and embarked on a honeymoon tour of France and Spain – Your Paris, You Hated Spain, Moonwalk, Drawing and the wonderful Fever. They spent July 1957 to October 1959 in the United States, first at Cape Cod in a cottage rented for them by Aurelia Plath (The Chipmunk, Horoscope, Flounders) and then travelling (The 59th Bear, Grand Canyon, Karlsbad Caverns), only moving back to England when Plath became pregnant (she gave birth to their first child, Frieda, in London in 1960). After briefly considering a re-location to Hughes’ native Yorkshire (Wuthering Heights, Stubbing Wharf), they moved to Court Green in Devon in 1961 in search of an idyllic country life and had their second child, Nicholas, there in 1962. However, cracks were beginning to appear in their relationship and some of Birthday Letters most forbidding entries cover the Devon period: The Lodger, Daffodils, The Rag Rug, The Table and Suttee. Plath had a history of high-octane mental instability; she had already attempted suicide once in August 1953 and been subjected to electro-shock treatment as a result. Never far from despair, 1962 was a terrible year for her. In July she discovered that Hughes’ had begun an affair with Assia Weevil, a mutual friend, and fled to London with their children (Totem, Robbing Myself, Blood and Innocence, The Inscription). Throughout that winter, one of the coldest on records, she composed her best work – the poems that would become Ariel and bring her huge posthumous fame. Her split from Hughes’ seemed a liberation and she wrote to her mother that she felt unrestricted at last, out from under his shadow (he was always the more successful poet during her lifetime). But by early 1963 her old depression returned with a new intensity. Her final poems, culminating in Edge, meditated pointedly on death, and on Monday 11th February she gassed herself in the kitchen of her London flat. She had sealed Frieda and Nicholas into their bedroom, leaving the window open to circulate air and bread and milk by their beds; a psychiatric nurse, sent by Plath’s worried doctor, found them later that day.
Hughes’ life remained entangled with Sylvia’s legacy: he raised their children alone and became her literary executor, a role that brought him much censure. It is clear that, towards the end of her life, Plath associated him with her destruction and disintegration - the extant journals, letters and poems from the time are filled with barely veiled venom, and fans and feminist critics have been quick to blame him for her suicide. Her gravestone, which read Sylvia Hughes, has been ritually defaced and replaced with Sylvia Plath; the feminist poet Robin Morgan wrote a famous article calling him a murderer. She went so far as to suggest that he should be “dismembered” in the name of justice. He has further been accused of “silencing” her: the 1965 edition of Ariel was carefully edited and certain of the more disturbing poems were excised. He destroyed one of her journals - the one covering the weeks before her suicide – ostensibly to protect their children from unnecessary pain (they didn’t know the manner of their mother’s death until their mid-teens.) The final poems of Birthday Letters reflect upon these criticisms, biting in their reproof. In the penultimate poem The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother, addressed to Frieda and Nicholas, Hughes’ envisages the critics as ravening dogs:
“…Now see who
Will drop on all fours at the end of the street
And come romping towards your mother.
Pulling her remains, with their lips
Lifted like dog’s lips…
And they will tear you down
They will find you every bit
As succulent as she is. Too late
To salvage what she was.”
It is impossible to know when Hughes’ composed Birthday Letters, although it seems clear to me that all of them were written in retrospect and that the vast majority form part of a late, and coherent, scheme. The same images weave throughout the work’s entirety, particularly Plath’s obsession with her father Otto (who died when she was 8) and her elision of Otto and Hughes’ into one single, horrific masculine monster. In one of my favourite poems from the set – Black Coat – he realises how deadly the association was, marrying as it did two kinds of familial abandonment [forgive the long quote]:
“So I had no idea I had stepped
Into the telescopic sights
Of the paparazzo sniper
Nested in your brown iris…
How that double image,
Your eye’s inbuilt double exposure…
The body of the ghost and me the blurred see-through
Came into single focus,
Sharp-edged, stark as a target,
Set up like a decoy
Against that freezing sea
From which your dead father had just crawled.
I did not feel
How, as your lenses tightened,
He slid into me.”
There is also a sense, ever present, of Hughes’s unerring and fatalistic belief in some kind of controlling force – her father (who he “became”), God or ghosts or gypsy magic. Looking back with terrible hindsight he perceives sign upon sign of her coming death; her living body is literally overshadowed by her corpse. All her actions, her feelings and fears are presentiments her future – in the world of the poems she is utterly determined by the apparent inevitability of the morning of the 11th February 1963. In Visit, an early poem in the sequence, he merges his first drunken attempts to catch her attention (throwing clods of earth at what he believes to be her college window) with grubbing around in her grave:
“The freezing soil
Of the garden, as I clawed it…
Inside that numbness of earth
Our future trying to happen…
You are ten years dead. It is only a story.
Your story. My story.”
And in Gypsy he recalls a flippant curse cast at Plath in Rheims – “Vous creverez bientot” – and, believing in its power, wishes he had placated the woman who cast it. Believing too, perhaps, that if he had been more powerful and insightful at the time, opened himself up to this bombardment of symbols, he would have been able to save her, and implicitly, himself. Indeed he suggests that this was what Sylvia expected and asked of him – he repeats over and over that she wanted a “God” to save her, or rather, a surrogate father; he failed to recognise his role in fate’s play and rails at both his lack of foresight and the injustice of the situation:
“In my position, the right witchdoctor
Might have caught you in flight with his bear hands,
Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other,
Godless, happy, quieted.
Far from this, he:
“…did not even know
I had been hit,
Or that you had gone clean through me –
To bury yourself at least in the heart of the god.”
He also realises, perhaps more insightfully, that Plath’s last poems, her Ariel ones, were only possible in a state of deep terror and horror…that her death was the price of her artistic fulfillment. He suggests it most clearly in Telos (“And hurling yourself beyond Omega/fell/Into a glittering Universe of Alpha”) and in Suttee, in which he sees the emergence of Plath’s late brilliance as a terrible birth, a form of self-immoliation. Suttee, of course, was/is a Hindu "tradition"; it involves the ritual suicide of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre. The connection between Hughes' as husband and Plath's suicide is clear. (The Birthday Letters themselves are heavy with Plath’s influence and many of the poems share titles with Ariel poems: it seems that Hughes’ was interweaving life and poetry in many exciting ways.)
I could go on and on, but ultimately, it seemed to me that Hughes’ tried to rebuild himself as the poet-God in Birthday Letters, the redeemer, who makes the ultimate psychological sacrifice after years of silence. Thus, he attempted a resurrection of both himself (his love/hate of Plath and his associated reputation) and of Plath too, in all her beauty and psychosis. The attempt is flawed… but honestly so: the poet is only human, no Messiah. He cannot help but cast himself in the role of victim on occasion, selecting and working the poems towards his own interpretation of events, even as he lays the final blame at his own door. It is clear that he remained confused about his relationship with, and feelings towards, Sylvia Plath until the end of his life; that he continued to love her and revile her, both fascinated and repulsed by her work. In the weeks before his death he began a new poetic translation of Euripedes’ Alecestis and Erica Wagner reports that the last stanza he finalised was:
“Look what you did: you let her die instead.
You live now
Only because you let her Death take her.
You killed her. Point-blank
She met the death that you dodged…”
She seems tempted to read this as yet another Birthday Letter and it seems inevitable that the relationship will continue to fascinate and compel commentators in this invasive way, that their poetry will always be read (in part, at least) as a form of autobiographical gloss. It isn’t always a bad thing.
Do I think then, like Andrew Motion, that Birthday Letters represents Hughes’ best poetry? Almost certainly not. It’s too loaded, too confused with the accusations, horrors and ecstasies of 60 years in dialogue with Plath. There are better poems from the early period (I dipped, gaspingly, into the Crow poems…). Still, I agree, it *is* incredible and probably the best “in” to Hughes’ work: so personal and relevant and grounded in a tangible, emotive reality.
And so, I’ll give him the last, elegiac word:
“Who will remember your fingers?
Their winged life? They flew
With the light in your look…
I remember your fingers. And your daughter’s
Fingers remember your fingers
In everything they do.” (Fingers)